With its 190 million inhabitants, Brazil has the largest population in Latin America and ranks fifth in the world. The majority of people live in the south-central area, which includes the industrial cities of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte. Brazil underwent rapid urban growth; by 2005, 81% of the total population was living in urban areas. This growth aids economic development but also creates serious social, security, environmental, and political problems for major cities.
Six major groups make up the Brazilian population: the Portuguese, who colonized Brazil in the 16th century; Africans brought to Brazil as slaves; various other European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese and other Asian immigrant groups who settled in Brazil since the mid-19th century; and indigenous peoples of Tupi and Guarani language stock. Intermarriage between the Portuguese and indigenous people or slaves was common. Although the major European ethnic stock of Brazil was originally Portuguese, subsequent waves of immigration contributed to a diverse ethnic and cultural heritage.
From 1875 until 1960, about 5 million Europeans immigrated to Brazil, settling mainly in the four southern states of Sao Paulo, Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. Immigrants came mainly from Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Poland, and the Middle East. The largest Japanese community outside Japan is in Sao Paulo. Despite class distinctions, national identity is strong. Brazil prides itself on being open to all races. It recently began a national conversation on racial equality and entered into a memorandum of understanding with the United States on addressing racial inequality. Indigenous people, located mainly in the northern and western border regions and in the upper Amazon Basin, make up less than 1% of the population. Their numbers are declining as contact with the outside world and commercial expansion into the interior increase. Brazilian Government programs to establish indigenous reservations and to provide other forms of assistance for these groups have existed for years but are controversial.
Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation in the Americas. About three-quarters of all Brazilians belong to the Roman Catholic Church; most others are members of traditional Protestant denominations, members of growing evangelical movements, or follow practices derived from African religions.
Pedro Alvares Cabral claimed Brazil for Portugal in 1500. The colony was ruled from Lisbon until 1808, when Dom Joao VI and the rest of the Portuguese royal family fled from Napoleon's army, and established its seat of government in Rio de Janeiro. Dom Joao VI returned to Portugal in 1821. His son declared Brazil's independence on September 7, 1822, and became emperor with the title of Dom Pedro I. His son, Dom Pedro II, ruled from 1831 to 1889, when a federal republic was established in a coup led by Deodoro da Fonseca, Marshal of the Army. Slavery had been abolished a year earlier by the Princess Regent Isabel while Dom Pedro II was in Europe.
From 1889 to 1930, the government was a constitutional republic, with the presidency alternating between the dominant states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais. This period ended with a military coup that placed Getulio Vargas, a civilian, in the presidency; Vargas remained as dictator until 1945. Between 1945 and 1961, Brazil had six presidents: Jose Linhares, Gaspar Dutra, Vargas himself, Cafe Filho, Carlos Luz, Nereu Ramos, Juscelino Kubitschek, and Janio Quadros. When Quadros resigned in 1961, Vice President Joao Goulart succeeded him.
Goulart's years in office were marked by high inflation, economic stagnation, and the increasing influence of radical political elements. The armed forces, alarmed by these developments, staged a coup on March 31, 1964. The coup leaders chose Humberto Castello Branco as president, followed by Arthur da Costa e Silva (1967-69), Emilio Garrastazu Medici (1969-74), and Ernesto Geisel (1974-79), all of whom were senior army officers. Geisel began a democratic opening that was continued by his successor, Gen. Joao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo (1979-85). Figueiredo permitted the return of politicians exiled or banned from political activity during the 1960s and 1970s and allowed them to run for state and federal offices in 1982.
Concurrently, an electoral college consisting of all members of Congress and six delegates chosen from each state continued to choose the president. In January 1985, the electoral college voted Tancredo Neves from the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) into office as President. Neves died 39 days later, before his presidential inauguration, from abdominal complications. Vice President Jose Sarney became President upon Neves' death. Brazil completed its transition to a popularly elected government in 1989, when Fernando Collor de Mello won 53% of the vote in the first direct presidential election in 29 years. In 1992, a major corruption scandal led to his impeachment and, ultimately, resignation. Vice President Itamar Franco took his place and governed for the remainder of Collor's term.
To date, all democratically elected presidents that followed Itamar Franco started and finished their mandate with no interruptions in the constitutional order. On October 3, 1994 Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected President with 54% of the vote. Cardoso took office January 1, 1995, and pursued a program of ambitious economic reform. He was re-elected in 1998 for a second 4-year term. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, was elected president in 2002, after his fourth campaign for the office. He was re-elected in 2006 for a second 4-year term. President Lula, a former union leader, was Brazil's first working-class president. In office, he took a prudent fiscal path, warning that social reforms would take years and that Brazil had no alternative but to maintain tight fiscal austerity policies. At the same time, he made fighting poverty through conditional transfer payments an important element of his policies.
In October 2010, Brazil held its sixth consecutive presidential and general elections since the reinstatement of democracy in 1985. About 130 million Brazilians, two-thirds of the country’s population, were eligible to vote, a mandatory civic duty. Up for election were the President, the governors of all 26 states and of the federal district of Brasília; all 513 federal deputies; 54 senators (two-thirds of the total); and 1,057 delegates to the 27 state assemblies.
Dilma Vana Rousseff, the Workers' Party (PT) candidate, won a runoff election against the Brazilian Social Democratic Party candidate, becoming the first woman president of Brazil. President Rousseff had previously served as the Minister of Mines and Energy and as the Chief of Cabinet in President Lula’s administration. Rousseff took office on January 1, 2011 and has prioritized growth with equity policies to eradicate poverty and fiscal austerity. She has been a vocal defender of human rights and promoter of social inclusion, most notably gender equality, and is generally seen as a strong advocate for transparency in government. Within the first year of her government, several cabinet ministers resigned at Rousseff's urging due to accusations of graft.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (November 2011)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( November 2011)